I remember growing up as a kid in a church watching all the missionaries come through and give their projected picture presentations. They always brought some dramatic stories of what God was doing in far off places like Africa or Asia. We would take an offering, have potluck, have a youth group bonfire, and call it missions week. Once a year the youth group would take a missions trip to Mexico. To me and my friends this was missions. If you were so lucky you too would be called to take up the mantle to go to some far off place to bring Christ’s message of hope. Whether or not they said it the message conveyed was that the people everywhere else needed Jesus because we here in America were a Christian nation.
Christian mission of those years was a colonial expansion of western values which also included Christianity. In those days 90 percent of Christians in the world lived in the west. Today less than 15% of Christians are in the west. The data shows us that in the west less and less people are actually attending church. No longer can we with any credibility call ourselves a Christian nation. It is time for our missionaries to come home.
When I was in high school God called me to full time professional ministry. At that time I felt a burning desire to be a missionary but not overseas. My desire was to be a missionary to my home. When asked in my licensing interview how I would address missions as a pastor, I gave them this answer and they didn’t like it. The Spirit impressed something on me that has now proven to be fact. We cannot continue down the path of missions like we’ve always done it.
I don’t want to downplay those foreign missionaries who have gone before us. I am very grateful to them and know for that season God had clearly called them to go as missionaries in the way that we did. If we are going to be good missionaries no longer can we do it the same way. I believe we can’t do it the same way for a few reasons.
First, globalization is fully upon us. The world has become a melting pot. People from all over the world now live in our neighborhoods here in the west. With all cultures coming together especially in the local church I believe that in our local churches need to be training missionaries to be sent home. What better way to incarnate the Gospel than to send someone into a culture that they know intimately and would have instant credibility? A missionary like that doesn’t need to go through years of cultural training before they can start to have influence. Recently, I had the joy of watching a friend’s church send a missionary “home” to South Africa. It was awesome hearing him talk of how he could immediately hit the ground running in his home country. This is how we need to think if we are going to think about living out our missionary identity in light of Jesus’ incarnation.
Secondly, colonialism is over. If you don’t believe me just look at the struggle we have had at making Iraq a western country. The success of colonialism has breeding the response often one of hatred and distrust. As missionaries we are to look to incarnate the gospel into the culture in which we live. How can we effectively do that if the culture we are going to hates and distrusts us? Let me speak frankly, sending a white American into a primarily middle eastern muslim country is a waste of resources. Because of colonialism white Americans are hated in much of that world. Instead why don’t we train and send a former middle eastern muslim who is in one of our local churches to that part of the world. Much better use of people and resources.
Finally, logically it makes no sense to keep doing it as we have always done it. Resources are running dry, traditional missionaries are losing their effectiveness, and less people are going because frankly there is less of a pool of people to choose from. Logically speaking if I say I am going to give away $20k a year to an organization and I quit making money eventually I’m not going to be able to give $20k anymore. I have to change what I am doing and go make more money so that I can continue to give. Same is true here, something must change, if we don’t change then we are going to just get the same things that we have been getting.
What if all of our churches across the world had the mentality of being sending centers to send people back into their home culture with the purpose of transforming that culture into the likeness of Jesus? If we did this we would be more effective missionaries across the world. We would save resources and find more people. We would begin to move past colonialism and move into incarnationalism.
It’s risky for people to go home. Just look at when Jesus went home, the people he grew up with wanted to stone him. It’s hard to go across the street and live out Jesus. Take short term missions teams for example, I’ve been on dozens of these trips and they can be powerful times for those on the trips (the missions effectiveness of them will need to be for another blog post) but consistently people come back home as accomplished missionaries yet won’t go across the street to incarnate Jesus. Why is that? It is because he have failed to see our local churches become sending centers
I think all those years ago the church missed the point. I think it was great to hear what God was doing across the world. He truly used our missionaries and I know that he continues to do so. God will use us even if we don’t move forward in the most effective way. Our churches missed the point because we made missions just for those called to go across the world rather than using what they learned to created sending centers to send people across the street.